Saturday, February 3, 2018

Another Deconstruction of a Game Running, Role-Playing This Time

How not to DM

As I did last time, I will start with the description at the top of the scene.  This Passage is from the game I was running online in 2013.  The party was aboard the Petrel, a ship under the authority of Captain Ramona Salvador, whom the players had already discovered was a no-nonsense, somewhat criminally minded woman, and definitely a pirate, who yet owed the party a debt and therefore ~ it was rightly believed as it turned out ~ could be trusted.

As the ship moved along the Dalmatian Coast on the Adriatic Sea, they ran into a storm:
The captain's mood in improved somewhat as the wind improves from the early afternoon through Friday evening, with a gentle wind that blows the ship down along the coast of Cres Isle and into the open Adriatic. This wind dies during the evening, until the ship is merely edging outwards upon the current ... but with the morning comes the worst.
A terrifying blizzard strikes the ship an hour before dawn, bringing with it frosty temperatures that immediately freezes all the guidelines and the deck, making even walking a dangerous activity. There's little time to string the necessary safety measures, and the party is rallied - at sword point if necessary - to help in battening and managing the ship. Ahmet's chicken cages are tossed about - but manage not to break - and the whole ship is put into a wild flight as the captain fights to keep her ship from flying into the Adriatic. Steadily, almost miraculously, she drives her crew to maintain the desired course.
At one point, Ahmet finds himself commissioned to hammer the knots in ropes to break them apart. Burnt by the screaming winds, soaked to the skin, he endures as one of boatswain vilifies him for not swinging hard or fast enough ... whereupon Madam appears, shouts an order at the boatswain that he fails to understand, and she strikes him so hard that it lays him on the deck. Ahmet cannot understand what either of them are saying, but the officer leaps to his feet, appears contrite, and flies at once towards the bow.
Step by step, throughout the day, the storm diminishes, while the ship makes good time; the coastline reappears (its been there all along, but couldn't be seen) and the crew describes it as Dugi Otok. They've come through fine, wasted no knots and the ship has come through with little damage.
By evening, though the rain continues, at the point marked by the yellow star, the wind has died again, as it shifts to the northwest ... whereupon a strong breeze sends you quickly along. Dugi Otok falls out of sight and the sea steadies into clear - if unpleasantly wet - sailing.

And, as before, comments not indented indicate my commentary on the game.

There are a few things that I meant to establish with the above description, first and foremost the discipline on board the ship.  The storm was randomly rolled, according to the system I was using at that time; but in the light of the storm, I used it to create a sequence of events to send the message to the party what shipboard life was like.  Ahmet, for example, is a "passenger," but on board a ship in a storm, passengers work.  At one point, the boatswain, or bo'sun, is struck by the Captain and accepts it dutifully.

My second goal, given the storm, was to emphasize the Captain's skill at managing a crisis.  I wrote the scene to be as much a depiction of danger as I could.  I was going for scary, discomfort, the possibility of death, or the ship breaking up ... which I hoped the players might worry about as they read through it.

I never knew, as when the description ended, no one said a word about their emotional reaction.  I wish I could say I've gotten used to this.  It's better at a game table; I can see the faces of the players as I push the routine.  On the other hand, if this had been a live game, I wouldn't have a record of it, and we wouldn't be deconstructing it now.

There are four players running: Lukas, a mage; Maximillian, a druid; Andrej, a cleric; and Ahmet, a fighter.  They discuss several things after the storm ends, but I want to focus on what Maximillian does, from his first comment on the post. Mareo, who gets a mention, is a hireling, and of no importance here:

Maximillian: During the storm I willingly assisted wherever needed, probably with the horses, and made certain Mareo did as well. Now, in the calm of the evening, I'll share my ale with whoever is not already asleep or on duty (I think I have about 30 pints, can't remember exactly), before crawling off to bed myself.

As a DM, I'm always watching for moments of action or behaviour that I can build an adventure around, or even an important scene.  Max gave me one here.  I seized on it immediately.

Now, my DM's instincts tell me to play this close to the chest, just as I did with the party, revealing what it is about the passage without overt explanation ... but since we're trying to deconstruct DMing, I'll walk through my thought process as it came to me.

Grog, or any form of spirits, is a BIG problem aboard ship.  Much of shipboard life is pretty slow and repetitive; but it is also very dangerous.  A bad step and a sailor can slip over the side so silently, particularly at night, that they won't be noticed until long after they're missing.  The heavy ropes that are used can grab at a body part, snatching it and crushing a limb, snapping a hand off at the wrist; or loose rope can get free and whip out fast enough to kill a man.  So in spite of the boredom, the crew must be diligent, constantly diligent, to avoid error.  Grog can be both a compelling Mistress against the boredom and a dangerous companion when one is supposed to focus on one's job.

No one knows this better than the Captain, who understands what the state of the crew must be for every inch of the journey.  There is a time to drink and a time to be sober, and it is the Captain that decides.  Still, given an opportunity, a crew will drink, if they get the chance, because they don't believe in the danger; a crew member very often will imbibe, no matter how rigorous the ship's order or how hard are its punishments.

Of course, Maximillian isn't thinking about any of this.  He's grateful they got through the storm, he wants to reward the crew, he knows grog is just the thing for it ... and he happened to have grog with him.  In other words, he's thinking like a passenger.

DM: Maximillian, Several of the men take advantage of your offer of ale, pleased as punch for the opportunity to sip a sud or two.

So, as I've explained before, I see a movie instantly forming in my head.  How will the Captain learn about this?  What will be the Captain's reaction?  Surely, it won't take long for the source of the drink to become known; a crewman will admit it.  Probably, a drunk crewman.  Hm.  Suppose we have a crewman who is made drunk somewhat easily?  Someone with a medical condition, who is great fun and a buffoon in port, but whom everyone knows to keep away from the grog when at sea.  Everyone, obviously, except a random passenger.

Now, I said the Captain was somewhat criminal.  And this is a pirate ship, and the party knows it's a pirate ship.  So what would a Pirate Captain do?

I saw it playing out the way a gangster would handle it:

DM: After going to sleep, however, you find yourself roughly seized in your sleep by two large men. You have no idea what their intention is.

I know that the shorter I make the description, the more worrisome the situation will be for Max.  He does know he's on a pirate ship ~ and that he's the only one in the party without a personal history between himself and the Captain.  The Captain's debt is owed to Maximillian's companions, so he is naturally a little bit more leary than the others.  Too, Max is a lower level than the fighter, mage and cleric.  And like the movie in my head suggested, he immediately assumed this was a random attempt to kill him by two strangers.  At no time, as I expected, did he connect this event with what I had said in the sentence immediately before explaining that he was jumped below decks.

Interesting, isn't it?  If you look at the original campaign post, you'll see I wrote the two quotes above in one comment:

And even though Max had time to see the words written on the page, he still didn't make the connection.  As a DM, you've got to trust in this.  You don't have to engage in elaborate cover ups to deflect from your intentions.  In fact, the less elaborate the cover-up, the less additional stuff you put in to separate the two ideas, the less likely the player will be to catch on.  If you misdirect too much, this will create suspicions: "Why is the DM trying so hard?"  Players will catch on, because they're human and they're instinctive about anything that looks out of order.

'Course, it doesn't hurt that I called myself "dumb" in the same post.  Wasn't intentional; but that probably did help sell the notion that I was guileless here in presenting the description.  I wasn't, however.  I had many dark evil plans in my head.

So, Max responded as expected:
Maximillian: I'll let out a yell like a startled donkey, and struggle as best I can. If the men are on either side of me, I will do my best to get to one side or the other, trying to move directly towards the man on that side. If they are both on one side, I will pull away from them.
DM: Roll a d20.
Maximillian: d20: 13.
DM: You manage to clip one of the individual's on the jaw (roll a d4 minus 3 plus strength bonus to damage to determine damage done). They are neither of them stunned, even if you roll maximum (though it's potential experience).
Maximillian also manages to squirm out of the way, so that the one with fists as big as the druid's head misses a punch and slams his hand into one of the solid posts by your hammock. The other, however, jabs his fist hard into Maximillian's ribs, causing three damage. Roll the d4-3 for damage and then let me know your next action.

My goal here is to play it straight, let Max think what he wants to think.  He has no idea these two men were ordered by the Captain to come collect him, just as a gangster would send a couple of boys around to your house to pick you up, if you annoyed him.  There are some "big" clues I'm giving; these are absurdly big fellows, with big fists, who are too big to be threatened by a little pipsqueak like Max ... and they're not using weapons.  Moreover, they haven't tried to silence Max, either.

Max knows he's probably going to lose, but in true D&D fashion, he's not going down without a fight ...
Maximillian: Not stunned, hp: 17. My next action is still dependent on their positions, as I'm trying to get free of the hammock and put it between me and the one with the big fists. I'm fine with moving towards the other one if that's what it takes to do so.
DM: Reading that as trying to free yourself from grappling, Maximillian, please roll a d20.
Maximillian: d20: 18.
DM: Maximillian manages to squirm out of his hammock, drop to the floor and get to where his back is against the bulkhead.  He can see now the two men. They're both huge. You've seen them before over the past few days - they seem to spend a lot of time near the Captain.
"Slippery fellow, isn't he?" says one, rubbing his sore hand.
"Yeah," says the other flatly. He draws out a belaying pin from his belt. "But the Captain said bring 'im, and she said bring 'im bruised. And I ain't convinced yet he's bruised enough."
They move around the bunk and Maximillian will need to roll initiative. A d6 please.

Now, I've got to say, Max is doing a pretty good job here.  I described the scene at the start as two guys grabbing him; he's managed to free himself from one with a poke on the jaw and above he rolls well and gets free from the other one.  He's using the scene around him to preserve himself; there's a good sense of space and investment in his character and situation.  So the scene has been fun.

As such, I felt it was a good time to tip my hand.  I have the two guys banter light-heartedly; they're clearly not angry.  And one says outright that the Captain sent them.  But as I'm DMing, I have to keep on two hats: the one where I am role-playing the two sailors, and one where I am handling the technical side of the game.  I ask Max for an initiative roll ... but at the same time, I fully expect he's going to realize, "Oh, this isn't what I thought it was; maybe I should find out what the Captain wants ..."

Max doesn't, though.  Instead he rolls initiative:

Maximillian: d6: 3.

Which leaves me no choice.  I've got to play my end as DM.  I know what the Captain wants, but these two guys have their orders.  I want to say, "Max buddy, just take a few bruises and give in."  Instead, I have to roll initiative.

DM:  The boys are going to roll a 4. They advance towards Maximillian, pins in hand - and a voice behind them says, "That's enough."
It's the boatswain, and he says, "Jacobo, he's bruised enough. Take him to the Captain and let's get on with this."
The men move to seize Maximillian.

Yes, then I realized there was a cheap trope I could use to get out of beating the druid into the deck.  Have a bigger authority show up and stop it. We've seen this in a thousand TV shows ~ but it works.

So there's some catching up with the rest of the party, I let them get involved a bit, Maximillian gives in and the party gives him a few concerning comments.  The fighter, Ahmet, has put it together I think, as he says,

Ahmet: "Your heathenish love of drink has caused this," Ahmet mutters at Maximillian.

But that's all he says.  And after a few more words, including that the player behind Maximillian announces his real life engagement, we pick up the scene again:

DM: Maximillian finds himself brought to the Captain's cabin - which is, after all, only twenty feet away - and the party in tow, the door not closed to hide what is going on. All will see the first and second mates, along with the ship's steward, standing side by side - not looking at all comfortable. There's a man who's back is turned to the party, standing in the center of the cabin, and the Captain appears to be have been interrupted while redressing him.
She looks at Maximillian and says to her men, "Bring him here!" in a very forthright manner.
Maximillian is pushed forward, to stand beside the other man.
"Do you know this man?" The captain asks Maximillian, pointing at the other.
Maximillian does. He was one of the men eager to have some of Maximillian's ale, earlier. At the moment, the man looks a bit drunk ... however, none took more than a few swallows of Maximillian's ale.
Maximillian: "Good ... evening, Madam Captain. I have made his acquaintance as a member of your crew."
Lukas: Lukas cringes slightly at Maximillian's flippant greeting and response.

Lukas is quite right in his observation.  At this point, I'm wondering myself if Maximillian has caught on.  But I have a whole dialogue set up in my head, and so far he's done nothing to derail it.  Of course, the opportunity is there; Max could say something clever, or reasonable, or intuitive ... but for that, he's going to have to think faster than he apparently is.

I'm doing my best as DM to give him clues.  The Captain is angry but polite.  She's forthright, not furious.  It's the crewman that pushes him forward; the Captain doesn't ask for this.  She has been dressing down a member of the crew.  It's not obvious, but the dressing down is for drinking.  The man is described as "a bit drunk."  If you look "a bit drunk" in the Captain's presence, you ARE drunk.  It seems probable that Max hasn't put this together, however.  That might be for a number of reasons:  the life experience of the player, a lack of personal experiences with military practice (even criminal military practice), which demands a certain structural hierarchy.

The man was eager to have some of Maximillian's ale.  Am I at fault because I didn't role-play this earlier?  Absolutely not.  What would you expect to have the crewmen be?  Not eager?  And I did say the men were "pleased as punch," which was Maximillian's intention.  There's no reason in the world that he, his character, would have singled out a single person as notably more eager than any other, unless I, as DM, made it obvious as hell by drawing attention to it.

This is a difficult tightrope to walk.  You can't put a neon sign on every part of the campaign without flatly ruining the mystery ~ and drawing excessive attention to anything as DM, the Immortal GOD of the universe (at least as far as being the only voice that describes it) is sure to kill it. As DM, you've got to say as little as possible, less than a little if necessary, to promote a sense that the world is a big, stressful place, full of uncertain conflict.  I needed to downplay the giving of the drink, so that I could up-play later why it was a very bad, bad thing to do.

That said, part of my plan was that no bad thing could happen to Max.  Yes, I was blind-siding him a bit, and yes the Captain was pissed, and yes it all looked very threatening ... but unless Max did something truly stupid, like grab a weapon of some kind and try to fight the Captain, he was safe.  At worst, he'd get a talking to, a little public shaming.  Practically the right of the Captain to do that: it is what every figure in power does, without hesitation.  Max, however, made it a little easier.  It became clear that he felt wronged, though technically he was responsible for doing something stupid (handing out grog) ... which took awhile to beat into him.

DM: "And did you give him strong drink?" demands the Captain.
Maximillian: "Madam, I provided for this sailor the same as I provided to the other off-duty sailors, what meager ale I had to share. I cannot take responsibility for his current state."
Andrej: "That is to say, I'm sure the small amount Maximillian gave was not enough to result in such a stupor."

I expect the cleric, Andrej, to jump in and defend his party member.  But it is clear that neither has grasped yet what a serious problem grog can be aboard a 17th century seagoing vessel.  Note that Maximillian does not even call Captain Salvador, "Captain."  He calls her, "Madam."  That's a strong sign that he just isn't getting it.

I could have had the Captain go at the cleric, or berate Maximillian for his error, but I've seen a lot of military movies, so I knew just how to handle this scene from a dramatic perspective.

DM: "Steward!" says the Captain. "Who here is responsible for allocating the rations allowed the sailors aboard this ship?"
The Steward: "I am, Captain!"
The Captain: "And who approves those rations?"
"You do, Captain!"
The Captain looks at Maximillian. "And are you aware that this man -" she points at the apparently inebriated sailor standing beside the druid; "- suffers from a condition where the slightest amount of alcohol renders him DRUNK?"
Lukas: Bites his lip stifling a comment.
Maximillian: "No, Captain."
DM: Still to Maximillian: "Did you clear it with the Steward before adding to this man's rations?"
Maximillian: "No Captain."
DM: "Did you clear it with ME?"
Maximillian: "No, Captain.  Did he?"

It's a great scene.  It would play out well in a film.  The Captain is beating the hell out of Maximillian ... and what can the player do, really?  She runs the ship, the room is full of pirates, the party depends on the ship to get to their destination and the fact is, SHE is in control here.  She must be obeyed.

But Max can plainly feel the pressure.  Playing this on the blog, a half hour passes between each of his answers.  And the last plainly has a back-talking statement in it ... which, frankly, I still don't understand.

What happened, however, was that the player behind Max jumped into a discussion about rules for arbitrating conflicts between player characters and NPCs ... which was clearly a compulsive derailment of the tension of the scene.  Even as we go over it now, the reader can feel the tension.  If you, as player, were on this particular carpet, you'd goddamn feel it.  If you have military experience, you probably HAVE been pulled up on a carpet like this.

Not all "role-play" is stupid, silly joking.  Actual hard-core role-play can be downright unpleasant, stressful ... and uniquely memorable.  Speaking for my own campaigns, I don't always get players who appreciate this approach: but I am a lover not just of humor, but of drama too.  Drama is where the rubber of my role-playing sessions, such as the one described here, meet the road.

So, after pulling Max back from his derailing discussion of rules, frankly telling him that he's stepping out of character because of the tension, I get back to it, picking up the Captain's words (I had her ignore his last statement, because it didn't make sense]:

DM: "If you want to take on the privileges of being Captain and bestowing on my crew whatever you like, you can experience the other part of it too. Bos'n - take seaman Praest to the bottom hold and chain him. He can have two dozen lashes in the morning. And have Mr. Boii sit with him overnight and make sure he's comfortable."
To the druid she'll say, "I'll make sure you get a good look in the morning. Now get out!"

Maximillian Boii [his full name] is more or less being let off the hook.  A night in the brig as a companion to a man, named Praest, whom Max has just helped consign to a tortuous whipping, could be an opportunity to role-play a lot of different things: contrition, a promise to preserve the victim, a decision to seek revenge against the Captain if the man dies, or perhaps to bring news to the man's family of his fate.  Most of all, just to make the man's hours before the whipping more cheerful and decent.

Instead, the response is this:

Maximillian: As we're being lead away, I express my displeasure to the sailor. "A fine way to repay a kindness, wretch."

That's very small of him.  And so I let Max have it right in the eye:

DM: The Bos'n, who's leading you down to the bottom of the ship, remarks, "This man's about to take a whipping for you, because you never took account of where you are and what it takes to manage a ship. You think we came through the last storm by luck and a prayer? The Captain's discipline brought us through it, and you saunter along the decks as though these men are your personal gamesmen to play with. They're HER men, you supercilious fool ... and when you watch this one die on the rack tomorrow, you might give a thought to what your thoughtless temptation has lost this ship!"

The Boatswain is not cheerful about what's about to happen.  In truth, the Captain probably isn't cheerful about it either.  She isn't doing it out of malice or anger; if she's angry at anything, it's that this situation is out of her control.  She has to punish the man, and she has to make it hurt, to send the message that when she gives an order, it means something.

I have to hand it to Maximillian, however.  He came right back with an excellent poem, and a message about the effectiveness of the sequence we've just examined.

"Bourne to Praest was ale
To wet his lips with thanks.
Wretched Praest grew pale
No thought for steadfast ranks.
Blind to fate he mustn't be
Knowing blows she bring'st he.
Bear his burdens now must we
When his temptations snared me."
I applaud you, Alexis. That sequence was exactly what should have happened. I've read enough sea-stories that I really should have seen it coming, but I was completely taken off guard, and that really built tension as I went through the stages of incomprehension to indignation to resignation. At first I thought this was a mugging, and I was going to be dumped overboard.

I don't put this forward as evidence of my DMness.  I want the reader to understand has this formula is accomplished.  You watch a lot of movies, read a lot of books, put together why characters are motivated to do this or that.  You see the world through the eyes of the various people: through the sailor who just wants a drink, through the two men sent to arrest a passenger by an angry Captain, through a boatswain who loves his Captain but sees where all this is going and hates it and through a Captain whose hands are tied ... and you pull these characters together to create a situation that doesn't actually harm the player character, but does provide insight, opportunity for growth, an experience of excitement and emotion, and overall a game that can be both predicted ["I should have seen it coming] and nearly completely impossible to understand ["I thought this was a mugging."]

Now go forth and be better DMs.


  1. You know, the concept of a "drunken sailor" is so embedded in my mind, it would never have occurred to me that drinking may be outlawed on a ship.

  2. Alexis what the fuck. You could have started online games like, years earlier and had more amazing goldmine posts like this.

    GODDAMMIT MAN, get it retroactively together!

  3. Yeah. It just didn't occur to me to write this sort of post.


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